Category Archives: Nonfiction

Why you should be reading about Nazis during Christmas.

Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party, the Holocaust, and the rise of the Third Reich have left humanity with a number of seemingly impossible moral questions. Evil on the scale of Hitler, carried out by an organized, industrialized, seemingly enlightened country, left the planet reeling in the decades that followed the war, and we, as a species are still dealing with the moral and intellectual aftermath: America’s military intervention in several international crises in my own lifetime seem to have been at least partially motivated—or justified—by the desire the avoid the kind of moral paralysis demonstrated by the Allies in the early days of World War II. The specter of Neville Chamberlain, as much as Hitler himself, has been repeatedly used to goad us into action. Of all of these problems, Hitler himself may be the easiest to solve: a broken, bitter man, turned sociopathic by either circumstances or nature, is not necessarily in and of itself an unusual circumstance, as the occurrence of serial killers and serial rapists would indicate. The real moral conundrum of the twentieth-century—as Hannah Arendt began to realize while attending the trial in Jerusalem of a mid-level Nazi in 1961—lies in a much more unassuming, even banal figure: Adolf Eichmann.

For when we consider Eichmann, as Arendt asked us to do in a series of New Yorker articles later turned into this book, we get at the heart of the Nazi difficulty. We are no longer asking the question, “Why did Hitler exist?” or “How do we keep another Hitler from happening?” We are asking “How, and why, did Hitler manage to get control of a major democratic European country, turn it into a massive war machine, come to control most of Europe, and turn the state apparatus into a bureaucratic tool for destroying Jews, Gypsies, and other groups? How was a madman allowed to destroy the centuries-old European Jewish culture in the matter of a few short years? Why did much of Europe and North America remain complacent, even complicit, for so long? Why did Germany so readily accept someone so clearly mentally ill as their leader for so long?” Even more complex moral and intellectual questions begin to emerge: “Why did so many Jewish people go so willingly to their own slaughter? Why did the Jewish leadership in many European communities act in concert with Nazi officials?” These last questions are the most charged, and in asking them, Arendt opened herself up a controversy that has not fully died down since she published the articles, and the subsequent book.

Eichmann forces these questions on us, because most of us, encountering a similar man in our everyday lives, would not consider ourselves to have met a moral monster. Arendt’s book leads us to believe that we do, in fact, meet the moral equivalents of Adolf Eichmann on a regular basis. We work with Eichmann, we are related to Eichmann, we may be Eichmann, depending on the situation. Eichmann was a loving father and a decent husband (by the standards of the time). He did his job—at least most of the time—to the best of his ability, and followed the orders and dictates of his superiors according to the best understanding of his own conscience. He wanted to advance in the ranks of his own society, but he did not have delusions of world-conquering grandeur. In the early days of the war, he worked hard to find the Jewish people a new home, one where that endlessly displaced people of Europe—suddenly made a problem by the Nazi party’s paranoid immigration policies and the pseudo-science that informed Nazi anti-Semitism—could “get some firm ground under them.” Eichmann read Zionist classics, and entered fully into the problems the diaspora had faced. When Adolf Hitler proposed the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish question,’—namely physical extermination—Eichmann grew increasingly depressed and despondent in his job. His moral judgment was at least sharp enough to realize that organizing massive deportations of people to death camps put him in questionable moral territory.

And yet, he continued to perform his job. And in doing so, he did what much of Europe did during this period: they obeyed clearly morally questionable orders, rather than listening to their own individual conscience. Perhaps even more terrifying, Arendt proposes, Germans, and many of the countries and peoples who came under their control learned to distrust their own human conscience, seeing the clearly moral option instead as a moral temptation, one to be avoided and suppressed in the morally topsy-turvy world that Hitler and his loyal henchmen had created. When Eichmann obeyed and implemented the dictates of the Final Solution, he was, in many ways, being a good person by his own moral light. For trusting yourself to the moral and intellectual consciences of your superiors was seen as being moral. Eichmann, throughout his own trial, claimed he had a clear conscience, and the Israeli psychiatric experts who examined him proclaimed him to be perfectly normal. In order to be a Nazi murderer, one need not be a psychopathic madman. In the figure of Eichmann we learn that in order to be key in organizing the transportation and execution of millions of Jews, one need only be too complacent to fight the prevailing moral fashions. One need only be a little too interested in advancing one’s career (for the sake of your family, of course). One need only want to be able to do your job, and be left in relative peace. You only need to desire not to have to think too much about the moral aspect of the job you are involved in, or perhaps be a bit too eager to let yourself off the moral hook for the institutional actions in which you are helping to bring about.

The words ‘Nazi’ and ‘Fascist’ are tossed around far too easily these days; political disciples of both major parties enjoy the cheap moral satisfaction that comes with implying that the current president—if he is of the opposite political persuasion—is the reincarnation of Hitler. The analogies are weak and silly at best, and, at worst, are harmful to a true understanding of the evil that caused so much destruction in the middle of the twentieth-century. These questions also keep us obsessed with charismatic leaders, finding moral blame and praise to give them, according to how much we agree with their policies. We get to feel like ‘good people,’ in praising, or condemning, the actions of remote leaders who have little bearing on our own lives; we simultaneously get to get on with our own jobs, our own little lives, advancing our own careers, loving our families, and ignoring whatever institutional evils we may actually be helping to engender.

This may seem like a strange book to review, or even recommend, right in the middle of the winter holiday season, when our thoughts are supposed to turn to lighter, pleasanter subjects. I’ve read this book, in various formats, three times in the past three years—I’ll be teaching in in the spring—and I’m surprised at the moral optimism I often gain from reading it. The quality and clarity of Arendt’s moral vision—not to mention her complex, but clear prose—is reassuring in a world that still seems all too determined to rush headlong into moral madness. If you want reassurance that moral clarity is at least possible, even in the face of mind-numbing evil, then this book may prove to be an oddly appropriate holiday choice.

Nathan Elliott teaches composition and literature in Georgia while living in Newfoundland, using the powers of the internet, and worries about the institutional evil he participates in by doing so. 

indiebound

Sell your books to Powell's

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Nonfiction

Judge not lest ye be judged . . . .unless. . . .

For years I had been proud of my nonjudgmental mindset towards personal religious beliefs. The way I figured it if God is this omnipresent all powerful being that gave man his own free will then I sure as hell held no right to judge how another may or may not come to believe in his existence. I had humbly come to understand that my opinion did not really amount to a hill of beans in comparison to a bigger picture. My conscience was clear, my hands washed, my countenance proud.

Then lo and behold, I read John Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven. To the very core this author shook me, knocking my pride down in cascading rivulets. I caught myself being critical of others through more than a few passages; at times I was even astonished at the fanatical ideas which appeared to possess individuals into accepting ass-backwards practices and notions, based on divine golden plated texts that were never found, very arguably authored by a fallible man of the nineteenth-century.

Surely, I thought, followers of Joseph Smith did not actually believe his load of baloney; especially since it was coming from a so-called prophet that crossed alters with wives when the poor girls were barely out of puberty. Ah, there it was, I realized I was being a cynical ass, close-minded even. Exerting considerable energy in reopening myself, and questioning whether or not I even had the right of claiming a free and clear conscience, I managed to get through Krakauer’s compelling nonfiction piece, but not without a plunge into introspection. Despite the self-tussle, my opinion on at least two absolutes in Krakauer’s handiwork remained constants from the get-go: herein exist epitomes of virtue and of evil.

Right off the bat, Krakauer does not shy away from the fact that his book centers on the heinous 1984 murders of a young woman and her innocent baby. Brenda Lafferty had her entire life ahead of her. If approached with oppressive idiocy she was an outspoken force to be reckoned with, she was smart and kind. She was once a pillar of her community, a backbone for subjugated women in her extended family, a dedicated wife to Allen Lafferty and loving mother to their baby girl Erica. Yet, for Allen’s brothers, Ron and Dan Lafferty, Brenda and baby Erica posed a threat. For Ron in particularly, it seems the threat was personal. To this silver-tongue devil, Brenda was the root cause of his impending divorce from his wife Diana. Ron was convinced his educated sister-in-law was ‘instrumental in persuading his wife to abandon him.’ He laid the rest of the blame on others in the community who helped his wife and kids escape a tightening choke-hold.

It did not occur to Ron that his increasing abuse could have had anything to do with his lack of marital bliss. Nor did he seem to have the slightest inclination that Dan’s influence may have had something to do with his metamorphosis from mainstream Mormonism into a Mormon fundamentalist that tried to force-feed his wife newly adopted polygamist beliefs. Perhaps it never occurred to Ron that Diana might have her own mind, or that she might get a little pissed at the loss of monogamy in her marriage and at the absurd demand that he would soon ‘marry off their teenage daughters as plural wives.’

If Ron did let Diana’s opinions cross his mind, they did not faze him. Any one who opposed him faced hellfire and damnation. After Ron’s tyrannical transformation, loss of material wealth, divorce, and excommunication from the mainstream Mormon church, he found purpose in a fundamentalist sect. It is then that he had revelations from God; revelations that supposedly instructed him ‘remove’ Brenda and her baby so ‘God’s work could go forward.’ This wicked hit list would not be limited to Brenda and Erica; it also entailed command to take out three others who aided Diana.

Armed with resolve to set an example for those ‘who fight against the true Saints of God’ this charismatic narcissist returned his eager brother the favor of his earlier influence. Ron convincingly spills the beans to his obedient brother Dan, who would never defy heavenly orders. Ron appears to understand his brother quite well, knowing Dan is a steadfast fellow tenaciously committed to the faith. Hence, it comes as no shocker when Ron bares that his divine revelations deemed Dan as the ‘hand of God’ and Ron as the ‘mouthpiece of God’. Either way, both Ron and Dan would carry bloodstains come Brenda and her baby’s last day of life.

Krakauer’s presentation of this multifaceted true narrative does not cease to keep readers at the meridian of a celestial-like climax. Indeed, Brenda’s and Erica’s appalling demise is only one of the soul-scorching zeniths in the book. Krakauer puts their repugnant murders in the context of present day truths and interweaves it with a troubling history of an American religion in the making. Political woes, religious schisms, deception, conspiracies, blood-revenge, racism, sexism, pedophilia and God-complexes are in abundance. No less apparent in their wake are kindness, mercy, compassion, law, order and unbending obedience. Under the Banner of Heaven presents the spirit of humanity, and its shared hopes, but it also reveals the presence of evil in the tangible form of men gone apeshit crazy.

To this day Ron remains incarcerated fighting the death penalty system. He has lost his religion, but not his zealous loathing of the American federal government. Ron appears to continue to believe that American politics pretty much come straight from the pits of hell. In a 2014 interview with Eric S. Peterson, Ron states:

‘I pledge nothing to the Democracy, so stick it back up Stalin’s ass or FDR’s-that Fucking Dumb Retard…That’s the era they made the term popular’

Ron’s Mormon fundamentalism came from no one particular source; it’s massive snowball that combined his hatred of the federal government, his strong abhorrence for the mainstream Mormon church that acquiesced to the federal demands for an end to plural marriage, and a growing animosity for the abusive Mormon father that beat the ‘shit’ out of his mother.

Ron’s co-conspirator brother Dan is serving a life sentence in prison, and looks forward to that fearful and dreadful day he bursts forth to carry out his ‘mighty and strong’ messianic message to the world. After incarceration Dan’s stalwart conviction in the Mormon fundamentalist’s religion waivered as well. Almost three decades after nearly decapitating baby Erica, and slitting Brenda’s throat, Dan firmly believes in his own soul-searched theological transmutations. He recently stated in an interview:

Free agency, Dan says, is an illusion pimped by religion to dupe its believers. “They use faith and other lies and secretes and deceptions to brain-fuck followers into thinking that they have the power to save or condemn people to hell…I understand very well that my philosophy makes me sound crazy, but I try to make it as logical as I can…But I don’t mind if people think I’m crazy, and I don’t know that I’m not…but I don’t think that I am. I think there is some good shit coming. God’s a good motherfucker, and when he comes back, he’s gonna be smoking a doobie, saying ‘Tired of this world? Well, it’s time to party. I really believe it…As Elijah, Dan says he alone is blessed with the ability to see the eternal reoccurrence of a life where 6,000 years of hell on earth is offset by a party where the chosen will get lit with Jesus and experience guilt-free mind blowing sex among other such unfathomable joys. – Eric S. Peterson (July, 2014; Salt Lake City Weekly)

Though Dan’s altered hippie-like dogma is disconcerting, his mind-bending regard for the slaying of Brenda and Erica is just damn disgusting. He still believes it was God’s will that he carry out the removal of Brenda and her baby, because God had reckoned them as ‘assholes.’ Thus, after much cathartic reflection from the mind rape of Krakauer’s gripping piece, my verdict is this: I would much rather be a tainted cynical ass than try not to judge Ron and Dan Lafferty’s crazed load of baloney.

Amber Cooper is a college student from Social Circle,GA. When not wracking her brain with her studies, she enjoys reading, discovering life, and storming baseball fields with her two boys.

Sell your books to Powell's

indiebound

Leave a comment

Filed under Nonfiction